Leaving

Processing

They delivered the news of his death with a sharply creased flag. She was nursing their two-week-old girl-child on the worn couch, lulled by the glow of the television then the hard rap on the door snapped her awake. She yanked her breast back into the nursing bra and bounced the squalling baby in the crook of her arm. The NCO stood at the door haloed by the morning sun. He was wearing dress blues. The golden buttons and white gloves beamed against the terrible sameness of this cul-de-sac. Her mouth was dry.

We regret to inform you. Killed in action. Your husband. In service to this nation and the beloved Corps. His beloved Corps. Regret. Taking fire.

She felt the officer’s fingertips as he pressed the triangle of the flag into her left hand.

Identification

She named the girl child Jonathan Rene after her dead father, whose remains were so damaged the Interment Officer touched her wrist and shook his head when she asked him to open the black bag.

“We have DNA testing now.”

She smiled, all teeth, and stroked Baby Jonathan’s arched lips. “Open it.”

The officer pulled the zipper and she peered into the dark slit. A pile of teeth heaped in the middle of a stubbled jaw. An arm with a tattoo of a skull in a top hat nestled against part of a rib cage. She couldn’t stop grinning. Her breath puffed in front of her and the skull peered at her through a monocle.

“Where is his heart?”

“Ma’am?”

“His heart? His blood? His tongue? Where did it all go? Where is his cock?”

“We were unable to recover all of the remains, ma’am.”

She pressed closer to the officer and pulled the baby blanket away from Jonathan’s face.

“This is our child. Do you think she looks like him?”

He flicked his green eyes to the door and put his arm around her. She could smell formaldehyde and deodorant and sweat and Big Red gum.

“His personal items will be sent within 5-7 days after they are processed, inventoried, and cleaned. His weapon will be issued to another soldier. You will receive his uniform. You will also receive a lump sum of one hundred thousand dollars.”

His voice hung around her as she stepped into the light of the waiting room. Jonathan yawned pink and settled into the creases of her own neck. She never cried. She just opened and closed those fat fists and pulled on her momma’s scabbed tit like a calf with that cruel little mouth.

Interment

Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer’s funeral was brief.

She sat between framed photos of their dead parents and watched some NCO lift the flag from the fiberglass box and snap it in half with another glassy-eyed officer.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She remembered him whole. She remembered him when she was young and he was young, deep in the woods that ran along the river where they fished for yellow mudcats. Before he became a pile of teeth, before he pulled his laces tight, before her pussy stretched and a creature turned inside her, they pinched worms in half and threaded them onto golden hooks. Coors Light nestled in the dirty ice of her daddy’s Styrofoam cooler on the bank of some forgotten inlet of the Mississippi. It was always too warm and the perch nibbled the worms off the hooks, flashing their yellow bellies as they flipped away from her bobber. A couple of times she fucked him out there when the fish weren’t biting, but the deer flies were. They specked his pale thighs with tiny dots of blood. She liked his resolve. He was a born leader.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She hauled them out onto a cinder block that they dragged up from the bank, and rubbed her thumb over the soft spot on their heads. She stabbed a straightened wire hanger through the weak skin and wiggled it until they quit flopping. She hacked off their tails and bled them in the cooler until the ice was pink and gray. She couldn’t let things smaller than her suffer in a crowded bucket, better to kill than to let die slowly.

Now her husband wasn’t. Mist beaded on the Class A casket paid for by the United States Marine Corps. Seven more Marines stood to the left, gripping their rifles in the fog. Twenty-one reports and the brass drone of “Taps.” People coughing. The rustle of fabric and a General Brigadier kneeling in front of her pressing another flag against her chest. His MO: sympathy, empathy, candor, and grief. He let a single tear trail down his nose, mapped with broken capillaries from nights in foreign bars where he smashed glasses and had his money stolen by laughing whores. She twisted a damp napkin from the Waffle House around her pointer finger and looked at a single stray hair in his right nostril. She leaned into him and wondered if he thought about her breasts touching his shoulder. They put some of Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer in the ground.

Housing

Weeks passed. Their lease was up. She sat in her gray manufactured house and listened to an odd bubbling rendition of “Für Elise” coming from the sticker-dotted ice cream truck. Baby Jonathan jerked her pink hands around, batting at her mother’s chest.

The music from the ice cream truck had always made a hard lump stick in her throat. From the time she was six or seven, the tinkling from a music box or the odd mechanical notes drifting through the air made her pull at her eyebrows and bite her thumbnail. She knew it happened on her uncle’s dairy farm. Whatever it was. There was a burn barrel and the neighbor boys throwing chicken bones in the air. They chased her to the shed. It was something, something to do with thrown out dish soap in her eyes and hard hands gripping her shoulders. Something to do with a pink porcelain ballerina balanced on one toe, crushed under mildewed magazines ready for the fire, and the mechanical plinks of a sad song. Something.

Once, when Jonathan was deployed, she sat rubbing her pregnant belly in the same little off-base house and waited for the ice cream truck to come. She stumbled outside when she heard the music, waving bills at the ice cream man, and begged him, “please please please, turn off your music, I’ll buy everyone here ice cream, but please, no more.” The children from the neighborhood pressed their hot little bodies all around her and put their sticky hands on her arms. She looked down at the crusted nostrils and red Kool-Aid stained skin around flaked lips and handed them Tweety Birds with blue bubblegum eyes and Chocolate Rockets and orange Creamsicles. The smells of fake fruit and vanilla and sun-warmed chlorine drifted around her. She gave the ice cream man her phone number and hoped he’d call her even when he wasn’t coming into the neighborhood. He was so young and pretty, with a thick-lipped gap-toothed grin, his fingers brushing hers as she reached for confection after confection.

Now, she pressed her scabbed nipple against the side of Jonathan’s face, praying for a latch this time. Toys and blankets, all in primary colors, were sprinkled over the worn carpet. Unfolded moving boxes leaned against the refrigerator. A straightened coat hanger with threads of hair still clinging to it, from when she tried to unclog the bathroom sink, teetered on the back of the reclining couch. The mail was heaped on the counters and his smell had disappeared before he had even died. She picked up her breast again and squeezed from the base, just like the nurse told her. A pearl of milk grew and dropped on Jonathan’s wrinkled forehead.

“I hate you,” she whispered through clenched teeth. “Just fucking eat, God damn you.” She wrenched Jonathan up and gripped the limp child under the arms, looking straight into her hazy gray eyes. “Do you want to die?” Her sore tit hung from the unclasped nursing bra. “Your daddy wanted to die. He wanted to die the moment he was born. Maybe you got that sickness, too.”

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills.

Custom and Tradition

She had been sitting on the broken recliner couch for two hours. The baby still wouldn’t eat. Jonathan cried and crinkled her forehead specked with scaly cradle cap. The truck was circling the block again. “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought it was all in good fun, pop goes the weasel!” The low rattle of the cicadas reminded her of her grandmother’s story about seeing the devil in the Mississippi woods. The same woods where she and her husband had fucked and caught catfish and hooked their fingers trying to impale grasshoppers. She put the baby down on a pillow with a snoozing puppy printed on it, and pressed her forefinger to Jonathan’s rose petal lips.

“Shhhh, Jonathan, I’ma tell you a story about the time that The Son of The Morning came and told Meemaw just what she needed to do. She was only a little girl, just a few years older than you. She was playing in the woods by the river because the grownups in the house told her that her momma needed privacy. They didn’t know Meemaw had scarlet fever, so they sent her into the bright sun with her rag doll and told her to be back for dinner. Meemaw felt so warm and tired that she sat down by the creek and started to cry. She was so very hot and her knees and elbows were just hurting from the fever. Then, from the other side of the creek, she heard someone crying. She saw a tall man with hair so red and skin so pure, sitting, sitting just like she was, crying. She asked him why was he crying and he said his momma was with the angels just like hers was. She told him that he must think she was someone else because her momma just needed privacy, because Santa Claus was bringing her a little sister for an early Christmas present. The red-headed man said he’d show her where her momma was, and that all she needed to do was come with him to the deeper water. When she asked who he was, he laughed and his laugh sounded just like a tinkling music box, it was so clear and pretty. The man came across the creek to her and offered his hand like a fancy gentleman, and his hand was as soft and creamy as a lady’s. He even had perfect, filed fingernails. Meemaw said she don’t remember where they went, but that his hand was as cool and smooth as magnolia petals. They found her half-asleep on the bank of the Mississippi, nestled in the cold mud. Only thing that had kept her from burning alive from the fever, they said. And guess what? Her momma, my great-grandma, was with the angels. She had died from giving birth to my Great Uncle Eustace. He died in World War II. Isn’t that something?”

Absent Without Leave

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills. He smelled like gunpowder and dirt, like little boys do when they’ve come out of the sun. His black hair was dusted with pale, powdery sand. He put his finger to her lips and raised the catfish up with his other hand. It spoke in the static silence of the room.

“I am,” it said.

Blood soaked her husband’s sleeve. The catfish’s tail had been hacked off and a crimson bead formed on the soft spot on the top of its gray head. Jonathan grinned. His nicotine-stained teeth gleamed.

“See? They sound like they’re talking.”

The catfish sounded just like Jesus in those church films they watched in Sunday school sometimes, when Ms. May was sick and couldn’t teach. “Let the little children come unto me.” The catfish flopped out of Daddy Jonathan’s hand and shivered on the floor, its gills working open and closed until her husband pushed her eyelids closed with his warm palm and pried her mouth open with his tongue. She wasn’t asleep. This was not a dream. He was here again.

Until he wasn’t, and she was holding Baby Jonathan to her stretch-marked breast trying to force her to eat again in the dirty living room. Jonathan’s silky baby skin was very cold and almost slick. A diamond pool of blood on her baby’s head streamed in long ribbons and pooled in the crevices of her elbows. A straightened coat hanger was caught in the fabric of the couch and dangled over the stained carpet. It was coated in blood. The setting sun filled the room with strange light and long slotted shadows from the blinds.

Separation

She felt a warm calm and knew where to take her child. There would be no caskets or paperwork. No flags or death-quelling Lilies of the Valley. She would not sit in a plastic chair in a glinting forest of framed dead faces. No. She would take Baby Jonathan to the mighty river and let her tiny body feed the turtles and the fish, and maybe get swallowed whole by a great mudcat. And when that fish was wrenched from the water and eaten by some family by the delta, they would drink beer and play cards in the front yard, until the night closed over and the warm fat raindrops drove everyone inside hollering. Mommas hushing the drunk men and the teenagers with their fat titties, eyeing their daddy’s friends with that wetness. “Don’t y’all wake them babies. You hear me?” The frogs burping love songs and the patter of rain on the tin roof of some trailer. Maybe her blood, mixed with that catfish blood and sweetish, malty Coors would make some girl dream about the devil and forget that boy with resolve.

R. Peralez HeadshotR. Peralez is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches Freshmen Composition. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English. She is from DeRidder, Louisiana. She is also the fiction editor for Quaint Magazine. She writes short stories about the South and the characters who inhabit it.